Prout family angling to lead Bering Sea crab’s next generation on the Silver Spray

It was during Sterling Prout’s first crabbing trip that one his dad’s catchphrases took on a new, more ominous undertone. As a young teen, Sterling had spent pleasant enough summers salmon tendering in Prince William Sound on the family boat, the F/V Silver Spray. Then, when Sterling was 17, one of his dad’s crab crew got hurt during the opilio season. Bill Prout — known on the ground as Hip — offered Sterling the spot, and Sterling recalls thinking, “Sure, no problem. I’ll fly out to Dutch (Harbor), and it will be just like tendering.”

It was shockingly different from tendering. The Silver Spray got throttled by rough weather on the way out of Dutch Harbor, and Sterling got seasick. Soon enough, he was on deck in the middle of the Bering Sea winter with older men he didn’t know amidst yelling and jostling, while baiting and pushing pots.

The seasoned crew did not show the skipper’s young son any special mercy.

“I just didn’t want any part of it. I even cried. It was brutal,” Sterling said.

Sterling said all he wanted was to turn the boat around and head back to port, and that’s when his dad, a longtime Bering Sea crab veteran, rolled out one of his catchphrases: “That’s not the way it works there, buddy.”

The way it works is you stick it out, and that is what Sterling did. Back home in Kodiak after the season, he got the best-looking paycheck of his life, bought a motorcycle, and thought: “Maybe I can do this.”

The Prout brothers — Gabriel, Sterling and Ashlan — with deckmate and business partner Leo Tuiasosopo and three full tanks of Bering Sea snow crab. Silver Spray Seafoods photo.

He also had a renewed vision of his dad, who has been crabbing since the 1970s and has long held a reputation for being among the best skippers in the fleet. Sterling ruminated on the longevity of his dad’s career and the respect that Bill Prout had in the fishery.

“Everyone said that he was one of the best fishermen out there, that he could smell the crab and knew exactly where to go. I never once heard anyone say anything bad about my dad,” Sterling said.

Sterling signed on for another year and started having conversations with brothers Gabriel and Ashlan.

“Dad had built this whole business up with his blood, sweat and tears. I said instead of running off to college and getting in debt for something we’re not sure about, why not try something we’re set up for?” Sterling said.

Before long, the three brothers were on deck together. They felt they needed to work hard and show their dad they could take advantage of the opportunity he had created for them, and they did just that. Sterling, 26, is now the engineer and summer skipper, and works alongside Gabriel, 30, and Ashlan, 24. The three, along with their deckmates, William Jacobson Jr. and Leo Tuiasosopo, recently bought 50 percent of the Silver Spray from Jacobsen’s dad, Bill Sr.

“There are only about 60 boats that fish for crab out here in the winter, and it’s a very, very unique situation to have every individual who works on the boat also own part of it,” Gabriel said.

The crew informally makes up the youngest boatowner group in the Bering Sea fleet and — another rarity on the crab fishery — each has a stake in the quota share.

“You’re a deckhand, but you look at it from a different perspective. You’re more responsible. You keep an eye on things. You’re a part of it,” Tuiasosopo said.

There have, of course, been some sobering brushes with the reality of owning a boat. Built in 1990 by Master Boat Builders in Bayou la Batre, Ala., the steel-hulled, house-forward Silver Spray is among the newer vessels in the Bering Sea fleet. But Sterling explained that even though the boat is running great, projects like this spring’s rebuilds for the twin K-19 Cummins diesel engines are a lesson for the young owners.

“We have a couple other big projects, some hydroblasting, then all these little things. As owners, we’re seeing all the money you have to spend on maintenance and whatnot. So we just try to cut costs by doing as much as we can ourselves,” Sterling said.

All hands for off-load: The crew fills the basket with Bering Sea snow crab for delivery. Silver Spray Seafoods photo.

But the younger Prouts seem unfazed by most things: big maintenance bills, bad weather, long hard days, low crab stocks. After a disappointing Tanner crab fishery last winter, NF asked Gabriel if he was worried about recent declines in stocks, especially in high-value red king crab.

“Even though king crab stocks have been going down for the past seven or eight years, even though they’re at historic lows and they’re anticipating a closure next year, that’s just a blip on the radar for our endeavors. It’s a big opportunity for us to scoop up some of those shares and start working towards fishing them on this boat,” Gabriel said.

He said that while most people in the fishery are looking at next season, or five years down the line, the young Prouts are looking 20 years ahead.

Talking to Bill Prout, it is obvious where his kids get their forward-thinking optimism.

“I don’t like to be a doom and gloom person. There are just too many unknown factors in this ocean. We don’t know what goes on out there, so we just like be optimistic and get prepared and ready for the next step,” Bill said.

And the next step for his kids could be a big one. They are hoping to start the rejuvenation of the aging Bering Sea fleet by building a new boat, one that incorporates new ideas and efficiencies into an old school fishery. 

“They think outside the box. They’re always looking around saying ‘we could do this and we could do that,’” Tuiasosopo said of the Prout brothers. “When they build a new boat, they will try new ways of doing things, make it as efficient as possible.”

Brian Hagenbuch is a Bristol Bay fisherman, a freelance writer based in Seattle, and the Products editor for National Fisherman.

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Brian Hagenbuch is National Fisherman's products editor, a contributing editor to SeafoodSource and a Bristol Bay fisherman. He is based in Seattle.

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